Friday, May 31, 2013

Loss is more

I had a friend once who lost a finger. It was the unfortunate culmination of a construction job, a scroll saw, and an momentary lapse of concentration. He was all right in the end. It was a just pinky finger, and only a day after it happened he was making jokes about the whole incident, more a testament to this individual's character than anything else. But still, I remember it kind of shook me. How would I respond to that kind of loss?

Sometimes I look at my own hands. I move my fingers one by one in a swift, rhythmic motion, as if they're treading water or pressing against some tiny invisible bicycle pedals. I see my bones press up against the skin of my backhand like the spindly metal arms of a typewriter, and I marvel at how simultaneously complex and fragile I am as a physical form—a soft package of nerves and flesh and blood, capable of moving and feeling and accomplishing an infinite number of tasks and feats, but also subject to immediate termination should it intersect with some fast-moving sharp (or, more likely, blunt) object.

Anyway, the point is that some things heal. Other things don't. Some things can be reclaimed. Other losses are permanent. That's life.

As we all know, video games—even the ones that emulate it—are not life. Okay, video games can be life for those of us that spend a lot of time playing them, but I'm really talking about what games represent. Everything is ultimately expendable in games, even 'lives.' Video game lives are a plentiful digital commodity that, unless they happen to be tied to quarters in an arcade cabinet, can be very easily resupplied through the quick punch of a reset button or its equivalent. This is one reason why games are so incredible. They can simulate just about any activity, while at the same time removing almost all danger and consequence.

All the same, I've been thinking for a number of years now about how fresh it would be to play a game where this wasn't necessarily the case. I would play a stealth-acton game like Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell and chide myself for my habit of restarting a checkpoint immediately after being spotted and shot at by a patrolling guard. I wouldn't even have to die. I just didn't like the fact that I'd been compromised and forced to absorb bullets. It wasn't the narrative I wanted to believe. And so I'd try again, and again, and again. By the time I actually managed to perform my so-called 'perfect' play-through, it was a stale, lifeless accomplishment.

In many respects, this was really just a matter of discipline. The game wasn't forcing me to behave in this manner. I was doing it of my own free will. And it wasn't just Splinter Cell. It was really a pattern of behavior that would manifest itself in other games as well, particularly ones that allowed me to save anywhere. A creeper in Minecraft would destroy my laboriously constructed home, and instead of dealing with it I would reload a previous save. My companion Lydia would die valiantly in the bowels of some Skyrim dungeon. Did I give her the humble honor of 'a good death,' as one particular orc in the game liked to say? Oh no. I resurrected her every time.

And so I began to look out for a game in which I could learn to actually practice this idea of letting go—yield control of my ability to reverse my mistakes or bad decisions.

One game that seems to encourage this is Civilization V. After all, here's an example of a turn-based strategy game—emphasis on the word 'strategy.' What's the point of playing a game of strategy if you don't allow your poorly strategized decisions (usually, in my case) to play out to conclusion? I've more recently come to enjoy the permanent deaths of Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac. As it turns out, the roguelike lends itself to this kind of playing style as a matter of its design philosophy, which is great, but even a rouguelike has its limitations. By nature of its difficulty, a roguelike game teaches a player to be both cautious and daring at every step, but it also tends to foster a kind of attitude whereby nothing is precious. Whereas victory becomes a genuinely satisfying accomplishment, that victory is more often that not simply an outlier experience, a monument built atop the burial of hundreds, if not thousands, of previous failures. There's no point in really mourning all those losses as anything truly lost.

I'm happy to say there's another game that does a remarkably fine job of allowing the player to experience loss. I'm talking about The Walking Dead, an episodic adventure game series developed by Telltale Games, based on the popular graphic novels created by writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore. I had been hearing a lot of good things about these games over the course of 2012. I think it's the first game that really managed to nail the episodic format. It was a running water cooler conversation. People were talking about these games like a television show. Having finally played the games myself now, I can see why.

So if it wasn't obvious from the title, The Walking Dead is yet another game about the zombie apocalypse. Unlike the glut of zombie stories that treat the subject as either one of horror or satire, The Walking Dead series falls closer to drama—intense, violent, shocking drama. It sort of asks the question, what would life be like if this really happened? Specifically, the game puts the player in the shoes of a character named Lee Everett (voiced by Dave Fennoy) as he makes a go at survival among a band of fellow struggling humans.

While 'adventure game' is probably the best available genre for which to describe The Walking Dead, it's a lot different from adventure games of the past. Yes, there are point-and-click segments aplenty, whereby the player uses a cursor or reticule to interact with objects in the environment, and to call these segments irrelevant would probably be a bit overzealous. But I don't think it would be unfair to say that the real standout portions of the game occur largely outside of that traditional framework. It's in the conversations with other game characters. It's in the interspersed moments of crisis, danger, and trauma, when the game confronts the player with a series of timed choices. What do you as the player character say in a given situation? Who do you save? Who do you hurt? Where do you go?

At first I wasn't sure if I liked it. Its earliest instances of decision-making felt strangely binary and mechanical. There was one early encounter that particularly irked me. Some zombies attacked. A good person died. But it all seemed so cheap. I felt I hadn't been given enough time and information to turn that situation towards a better outcome. Maybe I helped the wrong person. I still don't know. The important thing was that I didn't bother going back to try again. I didn't go online and look up what else might have happened. I would treat it, as best as I reasonably could, like a 'real-life' scenario. I found myself more interested in actually internalizing the situation as an honest-to-God role-played experience.

I think the four episodes that followed actually ironed out some of those early kinks. The moments of choice felt more personal and organic. They were based on relationships and power dynamics with other characters. Certain decisions and conversations stacked on top of previous decisions and conversations. Dialogue options seemed both appropriately varied and surprisingly believable.

The Walking Dead is far from perfect. But it's a thrilling and surprisingly emotional experience. And I ask myself a similar question that Tom Bissell poses at the end of his critique for Batman: Arkham City when he says, “Am I alone in wanting to play a game this good about something other than a dude in a batsuit?” Should I hold The Walking Dead in less regard for being another game about zombies? I think the short answer is no. The Walking Dead isn't really about the zombies. It's about living at the end of your limits. It's about cutting through the bullshit of everyday existence and being forced to come to grips with what really matters. It's about holding onto a diminishing notion of humanity in a desperate world that has otherwise gone to hell. It's about the heavy weight of our choices in both word and deed, and coming to terms with the fact that real loss is permanent.